In a city where five-star restaurants are tucked away in nondescript strip malls, there’s nothing particularly novel about a high/low culinary mash-up. Still, when Rome native Mario Vollera opened South End, a casual eatery dedicated to pairing fine wine with rustic pizza, it’s hole-in-the-wall location at the very southern end of Venice’s Abbot Kinney quickly drew a crowd.
The lively, welcoming atmosphere is entirely by design. When you walk into South End, the team (including chef Frank Fermin of Church & State and Mozza) welcomes all diners as neighbors and friends. From the communal high-top tables, exposed wine shelf, atmospheric background music, to his mother’s recipes, heart and soul goes into all aspects of this local joint.
Five years after opening, South End has become both a go-to date night destination for Westsiders and a beloved neighborhood takeout spot. We caught up with Vollera to find out why he picked Venice as a home-base for his restaurant, how he helps customers find the perfect wine, and the secrets behind these specialty pies.
What was the spark that inspired you to become a chef?
I was 16 years old and I asked my dad for money to go camping. He refused to give it to me and he said I had to go to work. I started to make pizza at a restaurant a week later. I came back the summer after, then the next summer, and the summer after that …
What makes South End pizza different?
Well, we don’t use commercial yeast. We’ve been making our own sourdough for the past 6 years now. We let the pizza dough rest for more than 24 hours, so it’s broken down and easier to digest. It creates a deeper sourdough taste.
But good pizza is about more than just dough, right?
Yes! All our products are from Italy or local products. I don’t buy anything from cans. We make our own tomato sauce. It’s really going back to my roots with the recipe my grandmother used to make: fresh tomatoes, cut them in half, bake for 45 minutes, add the thyme, salt, pepper and blend it together.
Why do you think people keep coming back to South End?
It has nothing to do with the food! They come here for the whole package. Enzo, our manager, is from Naples and used to be a chef (at Scopa). He’s an oste, he welcomes people. We do this because we are passionate about it. We care about our customers and want the best for them. If you do your job only for money, customers feel that.
In our experience, it also has to do with the wine …
Ha. Yes, when it comes to wine, I do always ask the customers about their tastes and what they like. I have them try at least four different glasses, so they can order something they really like.
Why did you open your restaurant on Abbot Kinney?
I love being part of the Venice community because I don’t feel that far away from Venice, Italy. The culture, the art, the beach, the people, the music … all of it is amazing. Walking on the boardwalk on a Sunday is pure magic.
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